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AFC South preview: The Jaguars aren't the only team expecting a big leap

The AFC's worst division from a year ago has no plans to be pushed around again this fall. After an active off-seasons, all four teams expect to make a big leap.

By just about any measure, the South was the AFC’s worst division last season. Its champion, the Texans, finished with nine victories, matching the Redskins for the fewest among all first-place teams. Its four teams also went a combined 13–27 outside of the division.

The final insult came in the wild-card round, when the Texans suffered a 30–0 playoff pummeling at home at the hands of the Chiefs.

Houston’s quarterback that day was Brian Hoyer, one of four different QBs the Texans utilized throughout the 2015 season. (Ryan Mallett, Brandon Weeden and T.J. Yates were the others.) Hoyer’s four-turnover meltdown was the last piece of encouragement the team needed to make a significant change at the quarterback spot, which it did by handing Brock Osweiler a four-year, $72 million contract this off-season.

Between Osweiler, Andrew Luck, Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota, the AFC South should be set under center for years to come. That is, assuming Osweiler—he of seven career starts, all last season—proves to be worth that massive financial commitment. And also assuming that everyone can stay healthy. Luck was unable to do so last season, suffering a multitude of injuries including, most seriously, a lacerated kidney.

Osweiler was not the only big move made by Houston in an attempt to defend last year’s title. To back their new QB (and to help ease DeAndre Hopkins’s burden), the Texans scored premier free-agent running back Lamar Miller, then drafted a pair of explosive wide receivers in Braxton Miller and Will Fuller. If all goes well, Bill O’Brien’s team finally will have an offense worthy of being paired with its J.J. Watt-led defense.

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Whether or not that’s enough to keep the AFC South in Houston depends in large part on how Luck performs. The Colts again face questions about their offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and secondary, but Luck is the type of rare talent capable of vastly elevating a team by himself. Indianapolis’s 2014 trip to the AFC title game was proof.

But will those potential trouble spots be overwhelming? Might they open the door for the Jaguars or Titans to climb the divisional ladder into contention?

It seems like everyone is waiting on Jacksonville to deliver a breakthrough. The Jaguars have averaged just 3.8 wins over the past five seasons, but their offense has top-10 potential and their defense features such exciting prospects as Dante Fowler, Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack.

The Titans’ hopes for a leap of their own lie with Mariota. Several key pieces around him have changed. DeMarco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry will form a new backfield duo, which will run behind rookie OT Jack Conklin. Another rookie, wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, stands to take on a significant role, especially after the Titans dealt away troublesome talent Dorial Green-Beckham.

There’s no question this division, across the board, had to improve. On paper, it has. Will the results play out that way?

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Favorite: Indianapolis? Houston?

This is a little tricky. Vegas says that it’s the Colts, barely—Bovada lists Indianapolis at 7/2 odds to win the AFC South, Houston at 2/1. That makes sense considering that the Texans did not clinch the division until the last week of the season, despite Luck’s prolonged absence.

There is no denying that the Colts should be in the hunt. They were a win from the Super Bowl just two seasons ago, and this year’s team has talent in places the 2014 version did not. (Anyone remember leading rusher Trent Richardson?)

Indy also has issues, chief among them a defensive line that will be down Henry Anderson, Kendall Langford and Art Jones to open the year. The Colts ranked 25th against the run last season and 24th in sacks, so regardless of who is out there, the front seven has to turn in a stronger effort.

The Texans’ own concerns up front only will last so long as J.J. Watt is out following off-season back surgery. The do-everything defensive lineman is questionable, at best, for a Week 1 matchup with Chicago. With Watt out there, the defense is formidable, one of only three to allow fewer than 5,000 yards last season, along with Seattle and Denver.

So, who is the favorite? Hard to say with any degree of certainty at the moment. But expect Houston and Indianapolis to go at it for the next four months.

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Dark horse: Jacksonville Jaguars

Patience has run out. Year four of the Gus Bradley era (and year three of the Blake Bortles era) brings with it the belief that the Jaguars should be thinking playoffs. Or else.

“To me, it’s great,” Bradley said in June. “This is what we’d hoped for, that you’d say, ‘Hey, this is a good roster.’ And the expectations, well, that’s what we had planned. When we put this thing together, we felt like at this time, this is the type of roster that we’d have, so it’s a good thing.”

The Jaguars’ offense showed flashes of invincibility last season. Certainly, they are overflowing with talent at wide receiver, led by Pro Bowler Allen Robinson. The 4,400 yards Bortles threw for last season ought to be the norm, provided he can cut down on his league-leading 18 INTs.

Jacksonville still has to find itself on defense, an odd predicament given Bradley’s sterling reputation on that side of the ball. Fowler’s return from injury will go a long way to patching up the leaks, as will the arrivals of Jack, Ramsey and free agent Malik Jackson. The defense now is where the offense was two years ago: promising but unproven.

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Apologies to Watt, who is arguably the best player in the league, but this is a QB-driven game. Despite scrapping their way to an 8–8 finish last season, the Colts were doomed when they lost Luck. The 2012 No. 1 pick still has his fair share of critics, a group whose membership increased when Luck threw at least two interceptions in five of his 2015 starts. Nevertheless, Luck has the skill set to be a generational talent.

“Get him healthy. Keep him healthy. Keep him protected. Keep him upright,” Pagano said of the goals with Luck, via “He obviously understands, going through what he went through in not being there for those nine weeks, he’s learned a lot, sitting there on the sidelines and being away being out.”

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Potential breakout player: Jaelen Strong, WR, Texans

Texans coaches have been telling anyone who will listen how impressed they’ve been with Strong this summer. Even if some of that is typical preseason hype, it was important for Strong to pull it together after a disappointing rookie year (14 catches for 161 yards) and a February arrest on a marijuana charge. The 22-year-old has company at receiver, as Fuller and Braxton Miller will push for playing time. But Strong was a third-round pick just a year ago, so he is well within the window for a massive step forward.

Rookie to watch: Tajae Sharpe, WR, Titans

The obvious: Tennessee was fed up with Green-Beckham. Sharpe’s rapid progression this summer made it easier still for GM Jon Robinson to throw in the towel on the 2015 second-round pick, which he did by dealing Green-Beckham to Philadelphia for swing lineman Dennis Kelly. A highly productive performer for UMass, Sharpe slipped into the Titans’ hands in the fifth round. Now, he’s making his case to be a full-time starter.

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Coach with the most to prove: Gus Bradley, Jaguars

Most of the ground here was covered above. The Jaguars’ front office has committed to Bradley and GM David Caldwell’s plan with restraint rarely seen in the win-now NFL. But ... well, Bradley has to win now. While he may not find himself jobless if Jacksonville merely fails to reach the playoffs, he will force some tough decisions to be made if his team cannot at least crack .500.

Must-watch divisional game: Colts at Texans, Week 6 (Oct. 16)

For the Texans, this game is sandwiched between trips to Minnesota and Denver. For the Colts, it kicks off a stretch of three out of four on the road, the fourth game being a home matchup with Kansas City. So it is conceivable that the loser of this one lands in a midseason downward spiral.